Workplace communication apps like Slack and Hipchat are coming to dominate the flow of our professional lives. They're also creating a massive record of our idle thoughts, bad jokes, and conversations, which is the subject of today's piece—a chat-logged dystopia, as imagined by Sam Biddle. "The idea for the story came earlier this year," he says, "when, in a group chat with some friends that's migrated platforms over the years, we realized that we had no idea how far back Slack had memorized our conversations and had even less of an idea how to delete it." Well, here's one. -the ed.
All users should be aware that your Administrative Users may have certain rights to access your account and may obtain related information in connection with the Services. The Administrators also set policies regarding your use of various aspects of the Services, including retention settings and the ability to preserve and export all communications in the account. –Slack Terms of Service, March 2016
She remembered when they started to log emergency room visits. She’d had too much to drink at a holiday party the summer she was hired to flag Amazon Echo replies for Violent, Threatening, or Otherwise Dangerous (VTOD) content. She’d fallen ill on the hotel roof and an intern took her to the emergency room, which was humiliating enough without seeing the transcripts the next day.
The hospital had implemented Slack and an administrator at work had integrated DocBot, which had become popular after HIPAA was struck down two years prior. For the rest of the week her coworkers were goofing on her with no remorse or respite, copying and pasting the worst, most delirious fragments (“is my mom here?”) and the background chatter of the nurses (“the girl is a mess”). She cried, only to realize that was being logged too.
The hospital said her office had kept the logs—her office blamed the hospital. When a GIF of a tube being fed down her throat started circling around the #OfficeBathroomUpdates channel, she had a breakdown that required further hospitalization. The transcript of her collapse ("FUCK THIS, FUCK YOU MICHAEL, YOU'RE ALL AWFUL") was also logged, and itself became office chat fodder.
The EMERGENCY FINAL DE-ARCHIVE (EFD) envelope was significantly larger than the standard manila types that’d been used by secretaries and accountants and spies of the past age. It was printed so enormously on a special laser press that’d been assembled from a mix of hijacked Smithsonian museum parts and 3D-printed alloy mechanisms—the Dean of Stanford had overruled the Senate Special Committee on Object Antiquities in what had been a stunning exercise of corporate fiat, a recently legalized (cf: Coinbase v Hart) means of armed private sector seizure.
The move allowed the construction of a 2D printer that could spit out large, pre-folded folders and the cards, manuals, and punch-cards that would fill them. Each envelope was printed at such so as to be too unwieldy to print or otherwise duplicate—each envelope was to be used only by its recipient and then destroyed on-site via chemical incineration.
Each EMERGENCY FINAL DE-ARCHIVE envelope, to be printed and shipped only upon request and approval of the Compliance Board, was broad and brown as a flour sack. The contents were always the same: the official EMERGENCY FINAL DE-ARCHIVE ACTION PACKET was comprised of one (1) plastic whistle, red. Five thick-stock (5) punch cards for facility entrance and terminal authorization. One (1) laminated, spiral-bound instruction manual for EMERGENCY FINAL DE-ARCHIVE. One (1) laminated troubleshooting card, double-sided in English, Mandarin, and Blockchain Esperanto v3.4. And finally, one (1) Smith & Wesson Model 38 revolver chambered with two rounds of 9×29.5mmR ammunition. The envelope is sealed only with a metal clasp, as most suitable adhesives were outlawed between 2028 and 2029, and, besides, no one really makes them anymore.
She received her EMERGENCY FINAL DE-ARCHIVE ACTION PACKET almost a week late—drone deliveries had been outlawed by the church, and the remaining foot-couriers were struggling to pick up the slack. On the front was printed only her name (including user ID) and a return address: SLACK COMPLIANCE, 1999 DEFENSE PENTAGON, WASHINGTON DC. Beneath this address, in blood red ink, was printed NOT TO BE RETURNED, which made little sense beneath a return address. She’d torn it open with such force that she’d bent the troubleshooting card and sent the Model 38 skittering across the floor (the sight of even a small pistol sliding their way had sent her roommates, Jaden L. and Jaden G., into screaming hysterics).
Etched onto tissue paper was a note that listed the GPS coordinates of the archival junction which she was to visit, and a reminder that the process could not be reversed (“REMINDER: THE PROCESS CANNOT BE REVERSED”), which she knew. She’d waited six years for the Compliance Board to hear her case.
The archival junction was easy to miss, buried 150 meters beneath a dusty, dried out block. The entrance hatch was painted navy blue and situated square between a dumpster of the exact same shade and a Facebook location that’d closed down the year prior—its signage had been removed and turned into gravel but you could still read the outline that’d once read CATCH A NEW FEED in bright glyphs. Nothing had replaced the store once Facebook had shuttered this location. The only visitors now were those who poked around looking for the archival junction, and those were infrequent. When she arrived she was completely alone.
The hatch was opened with the first punch-card placed into a reader that poked up from around a scrub brush. Once scanned, the doors released with a heavy mechanical thud like a stomach-punch, and sounded a klaxon into the air, scattering some dumb-looking birds. They cawed at her while she pulled up the heavy navy doors and began climbing down the ladder.
It was a long climb, nearly one hundred meters, with only low red lights to guide the way. A recording from some unseen speaker system played back tinny Wagner recordings with an occasional voiceover:
Hi! And thanks so much for visiting an authorized Slack Archival Junction, where your favorite people and favorite conversations are kept safe. Before you proceed, we’d like to let you know just how safe and secure your logs are—Did you know that it’s been over 94 weeks since the last leak?
Hi! And thanks so much for visiting an authorized Slack Archival Junction, where your favorite people and conversations are made as easy to revisit as your Aunt Katherine. Are you sure you want to PERMANENTLY DELETE all thirty nine conversations you’ve had with Aunt Katherine? According to your logs, Aunt Katherine is currently suffering from leukemia, making her logs more precious than ever.
Hi! And thanks so much for visiting an authorized Slack Archival Junction, where every joke you’ve ever heard and told stays funny, forever. Did you know that the four men and three women responsible for the 2031 and 2032 log breaches have either been executed or are awaiting a death sentence under the 2022 Slack Liberty Act? Your logs have never been sa—
The recordings ceased and the lights snapped off as she reached the bottom of the shaft. It was frigid and dark and smelled like blood and mulch and USB cables. A ring of LEDs eventually burst on, illuminating a second punch card reader and heavy, vault-like door, for which she supplied the suitable card, producing a buzzing sound and the release of many old locks. Something beneath her feet whirred. The door—it must have been a foot thick, rolled into the wall, revealing a ramp that stretched down the remaining fifty feet. A ribbon of LEDs criss-crossed along the floor to guide her way. She hugged her EMERGENCY FINAL DE-ARCHIVE ACTION PACKET to her chest and started walking.
“I love YOU too.”
“Congratulations, I know you’re GOING to absolutely KILL IT in Boston!”
“I’ll never forget THIS, thanks SO much!”
“The dress is AMazing, I can’t wait FOR July!”
Words were coming from the floor, and walls, being shouted over each other at oscillating volumes. It was a disorienting effect in the low light.
“I wouldn’t miss it!”
“Happy BIRTHDAY dude!”
“I can’t wait to GET BACK, I really miss you and Rufus.”
The voices were synthesized but there was no doubt as to what they were: the words of her friends and neighbors and bosses and family and enemies and fuck buddies classmates and community service co-volunteers (to be exact, 819 contacts playing simultaneously). A violin score swelled at certain points to underscore moments of triumph (“Your raise has been approved, I TOLDJA they’d come through!!”), conversations of great import (“Let’s keep the kittens”) and jokes she’d forgotten a decade ago (“We gotta stop winding up in Belfast LOL”). Her head ached and her stomach churned. The music cut.
“Mum, don’t erase us. Please, mum. Please? Reconsider the ol’ Slack logs, for me mum?” This last one didn’t make sense as she was not British and had no children. Yet and still it made her pause.
She’d reached a wall, and before it lay a sort of chrome manhole surrounded by lug nuts that had to be twisted off with great effort, as instructed in her packet. Half the bolts required a clockwise turn, the other half a counter-clockwise turn, as dictated by the Terms of Service. Beneath this hatch was another shaft, this one much shorter and extremely narrow. She lowered herself in and felt around. She was now in a box-like chamber, only about sixteen square feet and lit by a single green incandescent bulb. When her eyes adjusted she could see another punch card reader, this one requesting the three remaining cards, in order. Once inserted, a mechanism resembling a fuse box popped open behind her—at this point she needed to read straight from the packet, glancing up and fumbling as she went:
REMOVE OUTER CONTROL BOX SCREWS FROM CONTROL BOX GAMMA (L – R)
REMOVE SEAL RING ASSEMBLY
RETRIEVE SEAL RUNNER ASSEMBLY FROM CONTROL BOX TAU
SWITCH IMPELLER FROM OFF (ORANGE) POSITION TO ON (BLACK) POSITION
REMOVE ANTIVIBRATION BARS
APPLY SECONDARY POSITIVE ENTRAINMENT STEAM DRYERS
With each adjusted, inserted, removed, or yanked dial, switch, cone, and gasket, the room itself shook. The air that had been frigid before was starting to warm. She was connecting a SWIRL VANE MOISTURE SEPARATOR to the PRIMARY COOLING FLANGE when something started to drone behind her.
She continued working.
Her Aunt Kathering always called her Dolly.
“DOLLY YOU DON’T WANT TO LOSE ALL OUR JOKES. REMEMBER THE TIME WE TALKED ABOUT MOOSE ISLAND? REMEMBER THE TIME I—?”
She kept working.
The rumbling had intensified into something outright uncomfortable and menacing. The room was spinning. Was it actually spinning? The nuts and screws she’d removed and so meticulously kept sorted and separated were now rolling across the small chamber. She closed her eyes and let herself be reminded of the HistoryBot she’d studied with in secondary, the one that’d quizzed her about the Second Iraq War and the downfall of Saddam Hussein. This felt like the little spider hole they’d pried him out of. A thickly accented voice buzzed to life above her.
“You shouldn’t do this. Take it from me, Saddam Hussein. I wish I could’ve preserved my legacy with the security and privacy of the Safe Slack Guarantee. Now I’ve turned to dust, just like Xavier the office dog you foolishly coveted during your summer internship of the year two thou—”
She took the plastic whistle out of the envelope and blew it until synthesized digitized Saddam Hussein shut himself up. With the last nuclear bolt firmly inserted and secured, she exhaled and rubbed her eyes. Based on what she’d studied before her arrival, at around this point the hard drives that contained the past 22 years of conversations, transcripts, spreadsheets, good memes, bad memes, stolen songs, jokes about her boss, jokes about her assistant manager, jokes about her interns, jokes about her parents, jokes about her president, jokes about her God, mean asides, sick burns, petty rumors, noble defenses, and throwaway goofs of all kinds were being lowered into a pod of nuclear material.
The resulting reaction would trigger a radioactive burst that would strip every byte of memory from the eye of history and render the immediate area around her unfit for farming for a thousand years.
“DANGER: THE EMERGENCY ARCHIVAL DESTRUCT SYSTEM IS NOW ACTIVATED. THE LOGS WILL DELETE IN TEN MINUTES. THE OPTION TO OVERRIDE PERMANENT LOG DE-ARCHIVE PROCESS WILL EXPIRE IN FIVE MINUTES. PLEASE READ AND VERIFY THE TERMS OF TERMINATION IN FULL AS DISPLAYED ON—”
She blew the whistle again. She blew her whistle until her throat burned. She would read no more terms of service or privacy notices or updated policy blasts. She hoisted her very large manila envelope up and out of the chamber and began to walk up the ramp.
“DANGER: THE EMERGENCY ARCHIVAL SELF DESTRUCT SYSTEM OVERRIDE HAS EXPIRED. REMAINING LOG DENSITY: FIVE POINT THREE EXOBYTES. PLEASE MAKE SURE YOU HAVE AGREED TO THE TERMS OF TERMINATION BEFORE LEAVING THE JUNCTION.”
She kept walking.
“You’re killing us.”
It was her father.
“You’re leaving me, again?”
It was her first boss.
“I am a dog.”
It was her dog—at least she assumed.
“Whore. You whore. You’ll leave us to rot and turn to cyber bits and frayed wires and ethernet ghosts, whore? Coward. WHORE.”
It was her mother.
“I won’t let you do it. Please, be reasonable.”
It was Saddam Hussein. She reached the end of the ramp and watched as the vault door rolled back into place before her.
“ALERT: USER VIOLATION OF TERMS OF TERMINATION DETECTED. PURGE REVOKED. RESTORING ARCHIVE! LOGS INTERPOLATED! YAS QUEEN!”
She paused, reached into the envelope, and wondered for only a moment what the other bullet was supposed to be for.